How the Events Industry Is Responding to State Abortion Bans

Nearly 30 percent of planners say new legislation already has affected their site-selection decisions, but fewer are likely to boycott destinations.

Photograph by zimmytws for Adobe Stock

In the months since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, about half the states have banned or restricted abortion, as expected. For almost six in 10 meeting planners, this has had no bearing on site selection to date, nor will it affect their future choices.

But for a contingent of planners, it does matter. Regardless of their own ideologies, many are influenced by attendees and stakeholders to take this divisive issue into account when choosing a meeting destination. 

Before the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision, which ended the federal protection of abortion rights, 43 percent of planners said state legislation would influence where they hold meetings and events. Not only has that sentiment held steady among planners for their future site-selection decisions, but nearly 30 percent report state abortion laws have already influenced where they will meet, reveals the latest Northstar Meetings Group Flash Survey, fielded from September 1 to September 12. 


One important difference in planner sentiment from before the decision to now: Planners who said in September that state abortion laws will affect their site-selection decisions are more likely to "favor states that allow abortion, but it will not be the deciding factor." Four months ago, they were much more likely to completely eliminate states with abortion bans or restrictions. Clearly, after the fact, some who expected their organizations would take a hard stand have either reconsidered or been influenced by the discussions regarding politicizing travel in general.


Destinations International Does Damage Control

Concerned about the economic blow to cities and hospitality suppliers, Destinations International has been on a mission to convince groups that travel boycotts don't work. The better alternative: Go to the very places with legislation they oppose and express their objections in person. "Travel boycotts hurt our industry almost immediately," says Jack Johnson, DI's chief advocacy officer. "It will take months, if not years, before legislators who can make the change see the damage that's been done."

Representing the interests of destination marketing organizations, DI spoke out strongly against "the weaponization of travel" in 2019, when several states were in favor of "bathroom bills" and other laws limiting the rights of gay and transgender individuals. DI provided research-backed reasons not to use travel or meetings as a political threat. That effort has been renewed — and intensified.

"In the past, we've done studies and talked about some alternatives and developed some messaging," said Johnson in mid-September. DI is about to release new research and an informative white paper that goes a few steps further. "We're going to lay out a strategy saying, 'We believe you should go forward with your meeting, and once you're in town these are the types of activities you should engage in.'"

Politicians pay attention to only two things, says Johnson, a former legislative analyst: "People who vote for them and people who give them money." Meetings and events fall into the latter category, which should afford them some clout.

DI's new chairman, Al Hutchinson, is helping to enlist the support of local legislators to pave the way for effective group activities. Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, has been connecting DI's leadership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Conference of State Legislators, and others to raise awareness of how boycotts directly damage local economies.

With destination-specific insight from local leaders, DI hopes to be able to tell groups going to any major city, "If you're really serious about effecting change, this is what you have to do — A, B and C."

Will Meetings Industry Associations Agree on a Position?

DI can't accomplish this alone, Johnson stresses. "It's got to be a full-fledged push not only by us, but also the other associations, organizations and peer institutions out there." The Professional Conference Management Association is already onboard, he says, and he's hoping the American Society of Association Executives will at least consider supporting that message.

But getting ASAE's backing might be a challenge. Pre-Dobbs, a spokesperson noted that ASAE's values as an organization factor heavily into the site-selection process, and its contracts include an anti-discrimination clause that the association shares on request. The language was developed several years ago to address so-called bathroom bills and other issues of concern for LGBTQ+ rights. Theoretically, the clause allows for cancellation without penalty should a destination enact legislation or regulation that has the effect of:

  • Repealing existing legal protections or prohibiting the passage of legal protections for Subject Individuals;
  • Allowing discrimination against Subject Individuals in employment, housing, or public accommodations or services; or
  • Prohibiting Subject Individuals from accessing facilities (including, but not limited to, restrooms), where "Subject Individuals" are those identified in the legislation or regulation based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity, family responsibility, political affiliation, or disability.

ASAE went ahead with its Annual Meeting & Exposition in Nashville this past Aug. 20-23. On Aug. 25, Tennessee enacted one of the nation's strictest bans on abortions. 

ASAE's event drew 5,200 attendees, on par with pre-pandemic numbers, according to a spokesperson. During the show, leaders of ASAE and other industry entities, including Destinations International, had "a productive discussion" about abortion legislation, and how to best support the industry and advise stakeholders with a unified voice. While that discussion is "ongoing," said the spokesperson, "we're going to continue to work collaboratively with DMOs and Destinations International to incorporate their perspectives into our decision-making."

With 46,000 members, there's no easy course of action. In fact, segments of the membership have become "increasingly vocal" about whether the association should take a stand on this divisive topic, the spokesperson told Northstar. ASAE is sympathetic to the fact that political boycotts strike an economic blow to destinations and suppliers, he added: "We certainly don't want to harm an industry that was very severely impacted by the pandemic and is still finding its footing after some devastating losses."

ASAE's 2023 event is slated for Atlanta, Ga., where abortion is now illegal after six weeks' gestation.

Is There a Legal Way Out?

Those who back out of a meeting on the books will have to pay a cancellation fee or try to renegotiate, confirms Jonathan T. Howe Esq., founder of the Howe and Hutton law firm in Chicago. "But if you have what I call a 'political correctness clause' in your contract, and it specifically mentions abortion-related legislation, you're in good shape."

The wording of ASAE's anti-discrimination clause, for example, leaves some room for interpretation, cautions Howe. The more specific the language, the more enforceable the clause, he advises. If abortion laws are a particular concern, the contract should cover it directly. (For more information, listen to the free webinar, "Ask the Attorney: Adding Service Clauses, Flexibility and More to Event Contracts.")

In May, Northstar's Flash Survey revealed a sense of urgency to add such language to meeting and event contracts. Twelve percent of planners surveyed reported their contracts already included anti-discrimination language, with more than 70 percent considering adding new cancellation language to future contracts. Now four months later, just 5 percent of planners report they currently include clauses that would let them cancel without penalty because of new legislation, while the number of planners considering adding such language has dropped to below 40 percent. The majority of respondents either do not or will not include such language in their contracts.


Half of the Country Is Off Limits

Controversial legislation is happening nationwide. Where does a planner draw the line? "There's so much activity on so many issues right now, it's hard to pick a state that's potentially not a target for boycotts or bans," says DI's Johnson.

Indeed, options are shrinking fast for independent planner David Bruce. One major client holds an annual meeting of about 500 government employees, many of whom are based in California. That takes 22 states out of the running for the event because California won't reimburse travel to those destinations. "Every city I talk to is on the California 'no go' list," he says.

Bruce is referencing Assembly Bill 1887, a California law in effect since January 2017 that prohibits state employees from traveling to any state with laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Avoiding states with anti-abortion legislation — or any other hot-button issue du jour — adds to the challenge, says Bruce. "We just can't afford as an industry to lock out that many states. I can't even consider some of the most beautiful hotels in the country… I'm relegated to staying north of the Mason Dixon Line."

A Hard Line Can Split an Audience in Half

For most planners, regardless of their strong personal opinions, abortion rights have no bearing on their professional decisions. Both before and after the Dobbs Decision, 57 percent of survey respondents said such laws don't and won't affect site selection.

Mike May's clients, primarily large, middle-market Fortune 1000 companies, haven't even discussed this issue with respect to their events, he says. That's as it should be, believes May, who is president and CEO of Dallas-based Brightspot Incentives & Events. "Introducing personal politics into business decisions becomes problematic. Whichever way you go, you're going to alienate 50 percent of your audience."

A small group of 50 or so people might share the same opinions, but in a large national or global company, "people are going to be all over the map on how they feel about issues," May argues. Once you go down that path, "all kinds of things are triggered. Some of your customers are going support you; some of your customers are not going to be your customers anymore." The same goes for sponsors and so on, he cautions.

"I keep politics and all political issues out of my event entirely," echoes Jeffry Pilcher, president and CEO of The Financial Brand. "Money drives our decisions, not the political issue du jour." 

His event, the Financial Brand Forum, draws 2,500 to 3,000 attendees from the banking industry. "Unless you run a political event and/or have an audience that is decidedly skewed 85 percent or more toward one side or the other, what could possibly be the upside? How can I make more money running a for-profit conference by 'taking a stand' on an issue like abortion/Roe vs. Wade? It doesn't matter what my political feelings are about an issue like this," says Pilcher. "It's a lightning rod, a third rail."

Weighing the Decision to Boycott 

The decision to move meetings is typically driven by clients and would-be participants, not the political or personal motivation of meeting planners themselves. In fact, many groups already opt to meet in places where the political climate is agreeable to stakeholders and attendees.

"My opinions or my feelings on this are secondary to what my client wants or needs," says J. Jeffery Wherry, president of Wherry Associates, an Ohio-based association management firm. "My clients prefer to stay away from certain states now. We haven't had a meeting in California or New York for 20 years or so," specifically in reaction to the liberal policies of those destinations.

Most of Wherry's clients are business owners, primarily in manufacturing, "who generally don't have a very high opinion of government as it is, let alone any interest in legislation or regulations," he adds. "They choose not to spend money in states that don't necessarily align with their ideology."

The same is true of organizations like the Society of Gynecologic Oncology, which has historically favored destinations that support reproductive health services as an individual choice. In 2019, the society cancelled a meeting in Birmingham, Ala., when that state passed a restrictive anti-abortion bill.

Demographics can be a factor in how attendees feel about this issue, notes Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of Corporate Events and Leisure Services LLC. One of his clients is a group of cookie-makers, primarily women in their 20s. "They're pretty adamant about not wanting to do anything in states that have passed really restrictive anti-abortion legislation," says Vaughn. Another client, a female-dominated group with a somewhat older demographic, is less adamant. "Generally, they don't agree with that legislation, but not to the point that they would want to change a venue or just not go there," he says.

Large Events Face More Challenges

Among planner types, corporate planners are the most likely to be influenced by abortion laws. About half say such legislation is or will be a factor in their decisions. At least one-third of respondents in all other segments — including trade show organizers and SMERF markets — said abortion legislation is a site-selection factor.

Large national and international associations likely face the biggest hurdles. For one, they tend to book their citywide events years ahead. Backing out often means taking a large financial hit, along with the challenge of finding another city that can accommodate thousands.

That's a serious concern for the American Occupational Therapy Association, which, like many associations, needs to move its annual event around the country. Sites are selected five years out, and only 30 facilities in the country are large enough to accommodate their 10,000 attendees, according to Frank Gainer, AOTA's vice president of meetings and events. (View Northstar's 2022 Convention Cities Index for details on the top national and international destinations that can accommodate city-wide events).

Eliminating any states that restrict or ban abortion would significantly reduce the group's options, says Gainer. However, members of AOTA, 88 percent of whom are female, "are becoming more politically sensitive, and issues such as this affect whether or not they will attend our in-person events," says Gainer.

The same scenario is playing out for the National Council of Social Studies, whose annual conference is booked through 2028, says David Bailor, director of meetings and exhibitions. Next year's conference, expected to welcome up to 4,000 attendees, will be held in Nashville — and that will upset a significant number of NCSS's leaders and members, most of whom are classroom teachers; about 60 percent are female.

"They might not have a true understanding of why we have signed contracts already for several years," notes Bailor. "Nor do we have any language in the contracts that would allow us to get out based on a political development."

How Abortion Laws Might Impact Event Attendees

We should gradually get more clarity on the possible implications for meeting attendees in states with anti-abortion legislation, says industry consultant Joan Eisenstodt. Among questions that might be relevant to site selection: What happens if an attendee suffers a miscarriage during the meeting and seeks medical help? Could an attendee from an anti-abortion state be arrested for seeking information — or even an abortion — in a state that allows it?

A planner at a women's apparel business, who requested anonymity, shared this concern: "What happens if someone is raped and impregnated during my meeting? Which state's laws would govern her choices?"

As a precaution, one planner recently obtained an insurance rider that would cover the emergency evacuation of a pregnant meeting attendee to a "safe state" for medical treatment if required.

"I watch all this carefully," says Eisenstodt, "because my clients are watching, and it's my job to know."